Anyone with children knows that the start of school marks the first wave of the cold and flu season. But, before donning a full-body biohazard suit to protect yourself from this season’s illness onslaught, there may be another more practical alternative: echinacea.
For centuries echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and E. angustifolia), also known as the purple coneflower, has been used for a variety of problems. Native Americans turned to echinacea to treat respiratory infections and snakebite. American colonists later added this herbal remedy to their medicinal arsenal as well. In 1920, the Lloyd Brothers Pharmaceutical Company of Ohio listed echinacea as their largest selling product. It wasn’t until the introduction of sulfa antibiotics that echinacea was bumped as the number-one cold and flu remedy. While America has yet to restore its former level of trust in echinacea, some European countries have continued to use the herb. In Germany, over 1.3 million prescriptions are issued each year for echinacea-based products to treat minor respiratory infection. (1)
More than 400 studies have attested to the safety and efficacy of echinacea. For those with lingering doubts, more studies are conducted every year. In one recent German trial designed to examine the effectiveness of echinacea in reducing flu symptoms, 180 participants received either a daily dose of 450 mg of echinacea, 900 mg of echinacea, or a placebo. Those taking 900 mg reported a significant reduction in weakness, chills and muscle soreness. Those taking either the 450 mg dose or a placebo reported no improvement. (2)
In a double-blind study, 120 people were given echinacea or a placebo for ten days as soon as they started showing signs of a cold. Of those taking echinacea, fewer actually developed full-blown colds. The study showed only 40% of those taking echinacea became ill, vs. 60% of those taking a placebo. Interestingly, among those who came down with colds, improvement in the symptoms started soon in the echinacea group. (1) Since echinacea has been shown to increase antibody production, raise white blood cell counts and stimulate the activity of key white blood cells, (3-8) it’s reasonable to conclude that these powerful influences on the immune system may help prevent illness. One book, “The AIDS Fighters,” even indicated that echinacea may help boost an AIDS-depressed immune system. (9)
A 1997 study found that echinacea actually stimulates macrophages to produce cytokines, which help regulate the immune system. Macrophages are blood monocytes that take up residence in tissues, such as the liver, spleen and lymph nodes, and act as filters within the body. Researchers discovered that macrophages cultured in concentrations of echinacea showed greater antiviral effects than unstimulated cells. (10)
Another study, conducted in 1997, seemed to confirm these findings. Healthy individuals and patients with either chronic fatigue syndrome or AIDS were given extracts of echinacea. The extract actually increased the cellular immune function in all groups, leading researchers to conclude that echinacea enhances immune function in those suffering from depressed cellular immunity such as AIDS. (11)
Safe And Effective
Even the School of Pharmacy in Richmond, Virginia, found that echinacea is safe. In the June 2000 issue of “Pharmacotherapy,” the researchers stated that echinacea “appears to be safe. Patients without contraindications to it may not be dissuaded from using an appropriate preparation to treat the common cold.” (12) The authors didn’t go so far as to recommend echinacea, but for the mainstream medical industry, this is as close to an endorsement as they get.
A 1999 randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study seemed to support the safety and efficacy of echinacea. German researchers studied 238 cases of the common cold. Patients were given either echinacea or a placebo for a period of seven to nine days and asked to rate the severity of their cold symptoms using a 10-point scale. Physicians also assessed the patients on the fourth and eighth days. Patients who suffered from moderate system intensity at baseline showed response rates of 55% in the herbal remedy group, compared to only 27% in the placebo group. Patients who started therapy at an early phase of their cold showed faster improvement, usually by the second day, continuing until the end of the treatment. Overall improvement was shown at least three days earlier in the echinacea group and no serious side effects were reported. This led researchers to conclude “the study shows that the herbal remedy is effective and safe.” They also noted the therapeutic benefit was a rapid onset of improvement of cold symptoms and recommended taking echinacea as soon as initial cold symptoms are detected. (13)
According to Varro Tyler’s “Herbs of Choice,” echinacea should not be used by those suffering from severe systemic illnesses such as tuberculosis, leukosis, collagen diseases and multiple sclerosis. Germany’s Commission E, a government-established committee to determine safety and efficacy of herbal remedies, recommends that use should not exceed a period of eight successive weeks. Infrequent allergies may occur, especially in people allergic to members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). (14)
Echinacea has been used safely for centuries. It raises white blood cell counts and increases the body’s inherent powers of resistance, stimulates killer cells and demonstrates antiviral properties. (15) Echinacea is the perfect choice for battling colds and flu and may even help bolster the immune system in AIDS sufferers.
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15. Bartram T. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Grace Publishers, Dorset, England. 1995; 161-2.